Text by Karolis Jankus, Photos by Vytautas Mikaitis

“I love her, the arena of dreams” – emotionally proclaimed former Lithuanian great and 1972 Olympic champion Modestas Paulauskas about the new Žalgiris Arena in Kaunas. This statement illustrated the mood of some 15,000 fans on hand for the unveiling of the new state-of-the-art facility.

The wait in Kaunas is finally over.

Žalgiris Arena – the biggest in the Baltic States – finally opened its doors and witnessed an 88-76 victory for the 2011 EuroBasket hosts Lithuania over the 2009 champions Spain.

In this tiny country – where basketball is called a second religion – the arena will become the central place for the sport: home for Euroleague’s Žalgiris Kaunas, the country’s best team, and for most important games of the national team. It will also host final round of the 2011 EuroBasket. And, of course, like any other modern arena it will support variety of sports, such as ice hockey, concerts and other events.

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė and Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius attended the event, which was broadcasted live for four hours on national television.

A spectacular opening ceremony started the night, as orchestra and troupe combined for a theatrical performance displaying moments from state history and basketball victories. Speeches by many contributors, including FIBA Europe Secretary General Nar Zarolin, praised the arena, while fans impatiently waited for the pinnacle of the evening.

Spectators’ wait soon turned into excitement as Lithuania and Spain teams took the court for a friendly game in preparation for EuroBasket 2011. The hosts seemed lifted by the atmosphere of fan waves, loud “LIE-TU-VA” chants and constant support, surprising European champions from the very beginning. A symbolic slam by young fan favorite Jonas Valančiūnas capped off the first quarter and his team never looked back.

Lithuania shut down Pau Gasol, while Mantas Kalnietis’s 11 points led Lithuania to 50-33 lead into half time. Although Spain managed to stay close, the hosts put the icing on the cake with an 88-76 victory, as fans gave a standing ovation to their favorites.

It was a perfect night for the Žalgiris Arena, which, like its predecessor, Kaunas Sports Hall, will definitely see new basketball peaks and new legends forming their legacies. Those like Modestas Paulauskas.

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